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9.30.05
Politics and Economy:
Katrina: The Response
More on This Story:
Federal Emergency Management Agency

In the wake of the Katrina disaster nearly every American should be familiar with the acronym of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA. The agency has taken blame — some would say more than its fair share — for the problem experienced by hurricane victims.

In hearings in front of Congress this week, the recently-resigned chief of FEMA, Michael Brown, made vigorous defense of the agency, and his own leadership. Also this week, Homeland Security Department acting Inspector General Richard L. Skinner released an agency review which noted shortcomings in FEMA's response to disasters before Katrina:

FEMA's systems do not support effective or efficient coordination of deployment operations because there is no sharing of information...Consequently, this created operational inefficiencies and hindered the delivery of essential disaster response and recovery services.
NOW talked with former and current FEMA employees who trace some of the problems in FEMA's performance to changes in its organizational structure over recent years. Some point specifically to the movement of FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003 — a move which lost FEMA its cabinet-level status. Some critics also contend that the move signaled an increasing focus, and allocation of money, on preparing for terrorist attacks rather than more frequent environmental disasters. Indeed, Eric Holdeman, Director of the King County, Washington Office of Emergency Management published an editorial in the THE WASHINGTON POST, in the days immediately after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast:

To be sure, America may well be hit by another major terrorist attack, and we must be prepared for such an event. But I can guarantee you that hurricanes like the one that ripped into Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday, along with tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, windstorms, mudslides, power outages, fires and perhaps a pandemic flu will have to be dealt with on a weekly and daily basis throughout this country. They are coming for sure, sooner or later, even as we are, to an unconscionable degree, weakening our ability to respond to them.
Read more about the history of FEMA, and the current controversy over its performance below. (NOW's Emergency Resource Map will help you get vital information from your state emergency responders.)

Emergency Management History

The earliest efforts to deal with disasters on a national level was the Congressional Act of 1803. The Act gave assistance to a New Hampshire town which had been devastated by fire. For over a century the federal government passed such relief legislation many times for individual crises, but did not have a permanent disaster-response mechanism.

During the New Deal years, federal response to crises, fiscal and natural, became the norm. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation began to make loans for repair and reconstruction of earthquakes, and later other disasters. In 1934, the Bureau of Public Roads was charged with repairing disaster-damaged roads. The Flood Control Act of 1944 authorized "various Corps of Engineers water development projects" to heighten the nation's flood readiness.

Although the federal government was now taking responsibility for aiding citizens in the aftermath of many disasters, federal response was still decentralized. The Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, part of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was created in the 1960s. The government added to its disaster-relief duties with the passage of the National Flood Insurance Act in 1968. This was followed by the 1974 Disaster Relief Act, which created the process of Presidential disaster declarations.

In response to a request from The National Governor's Association, President Carter signed an Executive Order which further consolidated federal disaster response. That 1979 order created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), absorbing, among others, the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from HUD. In addition FEMA took over civil defense responsibilities from the Defense Department's Defense Civil Preparedness Agency.

After September 11, FEMA's Office of National Preparedness was charged with training "first responders" across the country in dealing with terrorist events. In March 2003, FEMA joined 22 other federal agencies, programs and offices in becoming the Department of Homeland Security.

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